Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reflections: And The Mountains Echoed

I’ve seriously hit a block. I can’t call it  a “writer’s” block, because I’m not a “writer”. But all the non-fun writing and work is keeping my brain constantly fogged and tired. I can barely construct an interesting sentence. However, since my pile of “books to reflect on” keeps growing, here comes a series of shoddy articles, written for the sake of it.

Khaled Hosseini’s  And The Mountains Echoed starts beautifully. It is not a single story, but several threads of stories weaved within each other. This keeps the book both interesting and exasperating, especially after the reader passes the mid-point. At a certain point, it crosses the line from being thoughtful and intelligent and becomes a checklist of interpersonal and social themes that usually make books sound intelligent; too much breadth with little depth. The book begins with the estrangement between a brother and sister who complete each other and love each other in a way that only soul mates are often talked about. For the most part, the novel’s trajectory follows the life of the sister and the characters that are associated with her. Almost every character’s story is recounted (even characters that are not directly associated with the primary narrative), and by some wave of a carefully constructed spell, they are all indirectly playing a role in the overarching story.

The stories are engaging, sensitive, and thoughtful. However, there are just too many characters and too many stories that don’t necessarily tie to the “core” of the book. The primary storyline should have been tightened to bring focus to the book. This book could have served well as a collection of short-stories rather than a novel that covers a spectrum of characters and themes that present themselves over a wildly swinging timeline. More than the volume of characters, I was frustrated with the author’s style of narration that shifts between timelines even within a sentence! Every page, and every few paragraphs has a shift in timeline. The  narrative rocks back and forth between past, present, and future in a manner that is pointless! Although this wasn’t making the story difficult to understand, it was just frustrating and tiring. I understand the beauty of narratives that don’t follow a linear structure, but too much of anything takes away its beauty.

And my pet-peeve - almost all the characters have the same “voice”. They all sound the same, say things in the same beautiful manner, and lack definitive personality. Having too many characters makes it challenging to develop them and give them their “voice”. Some characters were expertly fleshed out, though.

The writing faded into the background, because of the breadth of the stories. My focus was on the stories. The writing propelled the story, but didn’t strike me in any way. It was definitely engaging and easy to read, except for the constant shift in timelines (those sentences were infuriating). There are glimmers of really good characters, good writing, and good social commentary.

One of the things that did strike me as a possible unifying “theme” is every character’s search for something elusive and ephemeral. Everybody has a void and is desperately seeking out to fill that void. Love, self-satisfaction, and self-assurance are some of the things that people want to find, but struggle to understand its nature and challenges when they do come near it. The stories also present the strange and bitter dilemmas posed by Love. Many times, Love brings us to crossroads of decision making wherein every option is equally, painfully difficult to take. Having taken a path, we live the rest of our lives trying to reconcile with the loss of a part of us that died at the time of making a decision, and that we never seem to find in us again, leading us to be eternal seekers of something that cannot be named.

So, all things said, I think the author overdid a few things - his frustrating narrative style of constantly shifting time periods, too many characters with the same voice/style of narration, and  too many themes (from homosexuality in Afghanistan to adoption to parenting to immigrant experience in the US). If the book had focused on just a few core themes central to the primary storyline, it would have worked really well. It is still an engaging read that is hard to put down. But it doesn't stay with you for long.